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Nursing grads no longer in high demand

Allison Geissert, who graduated from UMass Lowell with high honors, has yet to find a full-time job. Allison Geissert, who graduated from UMass Lowell with high honors, has yet to find a full-time job. (Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff)
By Kathy McCabe
Globe Staff / June 6, 2010

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Allison Geissert delivered the student commencement address at the University of Massachusetts Lowell, where she graduated with high honors with a bachelor of science degree in nursing. She spoke of the privilege of going to college, and the responsibility that comes with a sheepskin.

Geissert, 24, spent her senior year working on global health issues. On her winter break, she traveled with some classmates to the Republic of Ghana, to volunteer in a health clinic and organize a nursing conference in the country in West Africa. Her honors thesis evaluated the H1N1 flu vaccination program at UMass.

And today, she has no full-time job offers. Neither do many of her 70 classmates who graduated with bachelor’s degrees in nursing last week.

“We kind of feel a little bit hopeless,’’ said Geissert, who lives in Boxborough. “We’ve worked so hard. Then we’re told there are no jobs out there.’’

The economic downturn forced a sudden shift in nursing employment. Hospitals that once begged for nurses, offering perks like signing bonuses and tuition payments, now can’t afford to hire and train new ones. Older nurses are delaying retirement. Part-timers are moving into full-time jobs or picking up extra shifts, reducing the need for new hires, area nursing officials said.

“When the economy went south, a lot of nurses who hadn’t been working, or were working part time, came back into the market,’’ said Patricia Demers, assistant dean of health professions at Northern Essex Community College in Haverhill. “That’s part of the dilemma now for new graduates.’’

Another is health care finances. Changes in patient volume and insurance payments, particularly for Medicaid and Medicare coverage, have forced cutbacks across the health care industry. Northeast Hospital Corp., which runs Beverly Hospital and Addison Gilbert Hospital in Gloucester, plans 75 to 100 layoffs to help reduce a $15 million budget gap, an official said.

“We’re facing the same challenges hospitals across the country are facing,’’ said Chip Payson, vice president of external affairs at Northeast. “We’re seeing a softening of volume and lower than expected [insurance reimbursement] rates, not only from public payers, but private payers.’’

The job cuts will reduce the deficit by about $5 million, he said. A consultant now is looking at staffing levels across-the-board at Northeast, which also has clinics in Danvers and Ipswich, and a drug and alcohol rehabilitation hospital in Lynn. “We’re looking at everything,’’ Payson said.

Other local hospitals have put the brakes on recruiting nursing graduates, who require costly mentoring and training the first few months on the job.

“We always have had a commitment to hire new grads, but I don’t see it happening this year,’’ said Mary Zwiercan, director of human resources at North Shore Medical Center in Salem, which also runs Union Hospital in Lynn. “We have a lot of experienced nurses in the hiring mix now. Nurses aren’t retiring like they used to.’’

Hallmark Health, which runs hospitals in Melrose and Medford, has hired 29 nursing graduates since last August, many of whom graduated from a two-year degree program it runs with Regis College in Weston. But the number hired is smaller than in past years, mostly because fewer nurses are retiring, said Nancy Gaden, chief nursing officer.

“We get a lot of new grads applying for every position,’’ Gaden said. “But we haven’t had a lot of turnover, partly because of the economy. . . . There are fewer openings.’’

Some veteran educators said the downturn isn’t entirely surprising.

“Nursing goes in cycles and always has,’’ said Neal DeChillo, dean of the Schools of Human Services at Salem State College, which graduated 175 nurses this month. “This year was certainly tougher than other years, but the need eventually will be increasing.’’

“The major acute-care hospitals aren’t hiring now,’’ said Karen Devereaux Melillo, chairwoman of the nursing department at UMass Lowell. “But we do know that long-term, there is going to be tremendous demand. We advise them to get the most experience they can now, to be ready.’’

Jewnifer Grullon, who graduated from Northern Essex last month with an associate’s degree in nursing, will start as a staff nurse at Greater Lawrence Family Health Center. She hopes to gain enough experience to move onto a medical/surgical floor at a community hospital. “People walk in with colds, fevers, chest pains,’’ said Grullon, 27, who works part time as an administrative assistant at the center. “I don’t have any experience, so I’m sure I’ll learn a lot. A health center is really the heart of a community.’’

Geissert plans to cast a wider net. She’s applied to six Boston-area hospitals. She’s also posted her resume online. She’s gotten calls from hospitals in Kentucky, Missouri, and Texas. She finds the response a bit ironic. She started college in San Francisco, but transferred to UMass Lowell, because she thought there would be better job opportunities.

“I thought it would be a strategic move, because there are so many hospitals here,’’ said Geissert, who works part time as a unit coordinator at Emerson Hospital in Concord. “Now I may have to move out of state. It’s discouraging.’’

Kathy McCabe can be reached at kmccabe@globe.com.

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